by Dorothy Haile
I would like to suggest that as we work to improve the quality of our training, we must address an additional important aspect: the qualities and qualifications of the people who are going through this training process.
In his January 2003 EMQ article George Schultz addressed one important aspect of pre-field missionary training, “Who does it?” He offered a helpful assessment of different models of pre-field missionary training, analyzing the various issues agencies face as they decide whether to be “providers,” “outsourcers” or “partners.” Clearly these are important considerations, which are strongly affected by agency philosophy and resourcing. His stated goal is “to improve the quality of our training to better suit the needs of both agency and missionary.”
I would like to suggest that as we work to improve the quality of our training, we must address an additional important aspect: the qualities and qualifications of the people who are going through this training process. They have one common characteristic that I believe often is not taken into account: they are all adults. This may not precisely be true for all short-term training, but those who are coming for long-term service are universally adults. Should we not therefore be providing pre-field training in ways that are appropriate for adult learners, taking advantage of what professional adult educators can offer?
In my experience many who are involved in pre-field missionary training are not educators by background. Of those who are, nearly all have their initial training in the teaching of children. While this is certainly valuable, I believe we ignore significant adult education principles in our missionary training programs to our detriment.
PRINCIPLES TO CONSIDER
A foundational principle of adult education is the importance of experience—both the experience the learner brings to the learning event, and experience as a means of enhancing the effectiveness of that event. Experiential learning methods such as case studies, discussion and research are fairly well-developed and accepted in pre-field training programs, both are used and essential because of the concentrated nature of the training. Other aspects of the experience of our adult participants, however, are largely neglected, and it is on these which I focus.
First we, especially those of us with academic backgrounds, need to recognize that life involves a wide range of learning experiences, many of which are informal rather than formal. We emphasize the importance of a learning attitude as new missionaries head out, but how often do we investigate what people think about learning itself? Clearly it is easier to recognize accredited formal learning opportunities as education, but learning also goes on in non-formal contexts, and in the demanding situations of life that require adapting to new challenges. From a Christian viewpoint, in fact, these informal experiences of learning from life and God in life’s challenges are probably some of the most important. Job, for example, through his sufferings learned:
I know that you [God] can do all things … Surely I spoke of things I did not understand … My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42.2a,3b,5 (NIV)
This learning experience changed him more profoundly than the logic provided by his well-meaning but misguided friends who tried to apply their formal religious education to a situation beyond their grasp. True adult learning involves more than adding information to one’s existing stock, and more than adapting to new circumstances. It involves developing wisdom in the process of reflecting critically on life’s events, and, from a Christian perspective, involves moral and faith commitments as well as the acquisition of technical skills. In research and writing on how people learn, for example, several researchers emphasize the cyclical nature of learning (Kolb 1993). As we experience a situation, we observe and reflect on it, then develop new concepts in light of experience and reflection, and then test those new concepts in other new situations. This seems obvious, but it is vital to recognize that a person’s basic philosophy of life and faith will affect his or her approach to each part of this learning process. Thus new missionaries experiencing cultural differences and reflecting on them from a biblical perspective could be expected to come to different conclusions than those of, for example, a secular journalist or a tourist.
How well do we prepare for this in our pre-field training? Too often, I suspect, we find ourselves providing information to be added to the existing stock in our participants’ minds, or focusing on their need to adapt to new circumstances, rather than helping them “learn to learn.” Those of us who have lived in cross-cultural situations for any length of time know that we return changed. How can we encourage newcomers to gain the skills that will help them to benefit from the lessons that life in a new environment will teach them?
Adult development models, whether focusing on the developmental tasks associated with life stages, or emphasizing the significance of life events, often stress that transition points in life frequently provide motivation for accelerated learning. Most adults, after all, lead busy and complicated lives, and will add yet another component to those lives only for some good reason. In fact, one of the characteristics of adult learners is that they are volunteers. They may, as Tough pointed out (cited in Knowles et al. 56-7), look for both short-term and long-term benefits. Adults want results from their learning experiences. They want to learn relevant material and see its relevance to their work or life situation as they are learning (Cantor 2001, 15). Obviously, our intending missionaries are volunteers (in a human sense), facing major transition and highly motivated. It is therefore part of our responsibility to provide relevant material and to help them understand how material they do not yet see as relevant may be essential.
Adult education is a wide-ranging and complex field. People with many different philosophies work in it, and have a range of purposes and emphases. We certainly would not agree with all they say, and I shall comment on some of our probable areas of disagreement. However, there is much from which we can learn and take advantage.
FOUR CLUSTERS OF ADULT EDUCATION GOALS AND EMPHASES
In general terms, four clusters of goals and emphases have been identified; each has something from which we may benefit.
Cluster One: Preparation for Academic Work. Cluster One includes those people and institutions whose major emphasis is to help people use their non-academic background for the purpose of entering a more academic future. Is this relevant? I believe so, in an opposite sense. Most of our cross-cultural learning experiences are non-formal, while our consciousness of having “learned” previously is generally in the context of formal education. Perhaps we should investigate much more specifically the participants’ experience of learning in non-formal and informal environments, and help them all to realize that this is where most of their future will lie. Will those who come with a healthy record of having learned nonformally or informally adapt better? I suggest we make a conscious effort to encourage our participants to think about the environments and styles in and through which they have learned most successfully, outside the classroom or lecture hall. I tried this recently and the participants agreed that much of their most significant learning had taken place outside the formal sphere of education.
Cluster Two: Pragmatic Focus. Cluster Two includes those whose emphasis is essentially practical. They are the adult educators who focus on method. Here experiential education has a double role: the belief that the learner’s prior experience is relevant to the learning environment, and the technical commitment to making the learning an effective experience for the learners by using practical and relevant methodologies. At a practical level, I have found that organizing the room in which learning is to take place by grouping tables in pairs gives a strong message that discussion is expected. This method (rather than a lecture hall or tables around the edge approach) creates discussion groups of six to eight automatically, and gives the learners easy opportunities for discussion and feedback.
The Cluster Two emphasis on the learner’s prior experience recognizes that this experience may be positive or negative in the learning process. Hofstede’s extensive research led him to identify “mental programs” (1980, 260) developed in childhood and reinforced in society, through which values are expressed. He also states that these cultural dimensions affect how people regard their teachers, their expectations of the educational process and their social relationships. In his 1986 article Hofstede specifically applies his research to teaching and learning. Two of the cultural dimensions mentioned relate to issues that may be advantageous to learning in the culturally familiar context, and yet may be a significant hindrance in a cultural setting with different values.
Thus a secular researcher is reminding us of the great importance of prior, unconscious learning, with its impact on how and what people learn as they adapt to cross-cultural living. It is important to recognize that these differences are descriptive rather than evaluative. There is nothing intrinsically better about either end of the spectrum, but they do describe what we learn in childhood and are comfortable with in later life.
“Power Distance” (Hofstede 1991, 307) relates to how societies cope with the unequal distribution of power, with a high score indicating a wider gulf between leaders and led, teachers and students, parents and children, plus a more top-down decision-making style. Most westerners with low Power Distance scores are accustomed to a relatively informal relationship between teacher and students and to being encouraged to express their opinions freely.
This will open up learning opportunities in appropriate circumstances, but not in countries such as Korea, or in much of Africa, for example, where teachers are traditionally expected to have answers and be the authority figure. New missionaries relating to high Power Distance church leaders, for example, may find their questions treated in very different ways from their own expectations, and may struggle with these different relationships.
Hofstede’s dimension of “Individualism” (1991, 307) describes the way in which individuals relate to the larger group. It includes issues like loyalty to a lifelong group (and the protection it offers to its members) in contrast to societies where people are encouraged to stand out from the group and the community. Active group discussion of differing opinions is encouraged in individualist cultures, but may not be encouraged similarly in a collectivist context where individuals in sharp public disagreement may be threatening to the community as a whole.
Opening up the above issues in a supportive environment has helped our orientation course participants identify their own values, and begin to think through the challenging implications of (for example) coming from an individualist culture and working with colleagues who value the group much more highly, or vice versa. I always start by asking the groups what positive qualities and values people of their nationality will bring to a multicultural team, and then looking at ways these qualities and values may clash with those of other team members. This discussion works best in a multinational group, and it is intriguing to watch people become actively aware of the differences and their implications as they listen to others.
The unconscious nature of most of this early learning of collective culture and values may be one reason why it often blocks learning later in life, when we are faced with new experiences for which our early learning makes us poorly prepared. It certainly helps to explain why cultural adaptation is such a stressful experience, when the difference between what we take for granted and what we find in the new environment produces classic reactions of surprise or irritation.
Whether we have to “un-learn” some of these deeply rooted values may be an open question, but certainly relearning is needed for people to accept the differences wholeheartedly and sensitively in order to function well in a multinational team.
Sometimes, of course, un-learning is as important as new learning. Blocks to learning may be, in our context, as simple as a bad experience of trying to learn a foreign language at school, with the result that adults assume they cannot learn a language. The blocks may be much more subtle, however, because many of the mental programs that come from our cultural background are invisible to us until they are challenged.
Another Cluster Two emphasis is the desirability of “learner centered-ness” or learner control in the curriculum. This is part of the adult education focus on “self-directed learning,” which was a major tenant of the work of adult educators such as Malcolm Knowles, who writes, “Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions, for their own lives” (Knowles et al. 65).
Self-directedness is a much-discussed and controversial topic among adult education theorists, and in some cases its significance has been greatly exaggerated. But if we interpret it in the light of Crabb’s summary of “the enduring qualities of person-hood which God and people share” (Crabb 1987, 92) we shall not be surprised that adults both evaluate and choose. Crabb describes the qualities of persons as “deep longings, evaluative thinking, active choosing, and emotional experiencing” (94-95). In this context self-directedness is not the selfish choice of a rebel sinner, but the active dependence of a growing saint.
In light of this, we should note that “one of the most popular ideas in adult education is that individuals want to have control over their learning based on their personal goals and that learning will increase as a result” (Knowles et al. 123). I think we could do more to assess the felt needs of new missionary candidates and involve them in the planning process more effectively. In another sense, however, we cannot rely on what new missionaries think they need to know, but we must also work with them to stimulate new thinking and stretch them beyond their comfort zones or even their previously felt needs (Brookfield 1986, 146). Clearly, as we plan learning experiences for adults we need to be sensitive to the nature of the stimuli which have brought them to the point of wanting to learn and how the stimuli have influenced what and how they learn. We are then servants or facilitators to adult learners in a much more specific way than a teacher in school is normally thought to be. This is a challenging task, and I think training for pre-field trainers is essential if we are to fulfil our responsibilities adequately.
Cluster Three: Social Change Focus. Advocates of the Cluster Three approach to adult education have social change as their goal. Here experiential learning may lead to freeing people from some form of social bondage, or to a more specific challenge to the social system. This is the liberation theology scene, which sees the gospel of Christ as a message of liberation, and the church as a force for social change. In the words of famous liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, “The starting point of liberation theology is commitment to the poor, the ‘non-person’. Its ideas come from the victim.” (Ferguson and Wright 1988, 388). Clearly the experience of the learner, here seen as a victim of oppression, is the starting point and motivating force for liberating change. This theological perspective implies a more active role in advocating social change than we evangelical mission agencies normally take. However, most of us do demonstrate Christian compassion through a variety of practical means of Christian service, which often bring about social change.
Therefore, I suspect we should think much more carefully about the (often unintended) results of our interventions in established social customs, and try to help newcomers recognize the fact that their very presence will affect the society in which they live. As Brookfield says, we should seek to encourage “in learners a sense of the culturally constructed nature of knowledge, beliefs, values and behaviours” (1986, 17). Encouraging our missionary candidates to make a firm commitment to understand their new culture and context as well as possible, and then to be positive agents of change, is extremely important.
Thinking about Cluster Three issues has made me consider that this is an issue we should discuss more in our orientation courses. It is also true, however, that responses to this kind of discussion will be varied, and we need to engage in the kind of “transactional dialogue” Brookfield advocates (1986, 23-4), in which participants are sensitized to the issues and challenged to reach their own conclusions about the extent to which they will consciously advocate social change.
Here again, we who live and work in a Western and white context, and come with our unconscious assumptions about cultural norms of life and Christian discipleship, may tend to ignore the issues of power and privilege which are only too obvious to others (Johnson-Bailey and Cervero, 156). The wonderful expansion of mission in today’s world, wherein we work in an increasingly international and multicultural context, will force us to face this issue more and more explicitly, and to our benefit. Even in our pre-field training programs, we will have to learn about cross-cultural differences in teaching and learning expectations, and present the same material differently in different contexts. Here is an exciting challenge to us as trainers.
Cluster Four: Individual Change Focus. Cluster Four proponents encourage and stimulate change in individuals. Generally the goal of this change has been greater individual autonomy and self-directedness. Here again as Christians we can learn from this approach, but not agree wholeheartedly. As Hofstede points out, “the Maslow hierarchy of human needs is based on one special set of societal norms” (1980, 325), and those who move from a culture where self-actualization is a commended goal may find themselves at odds with the societal norms in places where this is not so. In a society where people have a sense of collective identity, self-directedness and autonomy —if they exist at all—will look different. If, on the other hand, it is possible to consider “self-actualization” in the Christian context as biblically commanded perfection, then we can use Maslow’s concept effectively. We are called to perfection by Jesus Christ himself, “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:45).
For us as mission agencies, personal and spiritual growth is important and strongly emphasized. As people move to a new cross-cultural situation, they will certainly be challenged to grow, and they may find that many of their cherished assumptions are undermined. Here is a classic opportunity for the learning cycle to operate. Their experience is transformed as they reflect on what they observe, develop new concepts, experiment, and grow in understanding (Kolb, 151). For new missionaries, in fact, learning is certainly “a holistic adaptive process.” For individualistic westerners, one major aspect of growth will be to value the community—and especially the community of the church—more highly than ever before. This emphasis on community is, I believe, far more appropriate in the Christian context than is the humanist context of individual self-fulfilment. Thus the Cluster Four emphasis on the importance of ongoing growth and development has value for us, in that it does not necessarily define the growth goals.
In summary, the theory and practice of adult education has much to teach those of us who are involved with pre-field training of missionaries, and I would suggest, those who are developing orientation and language learning programs on our fields.
Brookfield, Stephen D. 1986. Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Cantor, Jeffrey A. 2001. Delivering Instruction to Adult Learners. Toronto: Wall and Emerson.
Crabb, Lawrence J. 1987. Understanding People. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
Ferguson, Sinclair B. and David F. Wright. 1988. New Dictionary of Theology. S.v. “Liberation Theology” by Harvie M. Conn. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Hofstede, Geert. 1980. Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications.
___. 1986. “Cultural Differences in Teaching and Learning.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 10:301-320.
Johnson-Bailey, Juanita and Ronald M. Cervero. 2000. “The Invisible Politics of Race in Adult Education.” In Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education, ed. Arthur L. Wilson and Elizabeth R. Hayes, 147-160. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kolb, David A. 1993. “The Process of Experiential Learning.” In The Culture and Processes of Adult Learning, ed. M. Thorpe, R. Edwards and S. Hanson, 38-56. New York: Open University Press.
Knowles, Malcolm S., Elwood Holton III, and Richard A. Swanson. 1998. The Adult Learner (5th edition). Houston, Tex.: Gulf Publishing Co.
Schultz, George. 2003. “The Best Missionary Training Model?” Evangelical Missions Quarterly (January): 90-95.
Dorothy Haile is international personnel coordinator for SIM. From the UK, she served in Zambia as a secondary school teacher, before becoming involved in personnel administration.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 192-200. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.